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In citing Sudan dangers, Bolton went beyond CIA

WASHINGTON -- In November of 2001, John Bolton announced at a biological weapons treaty conference that the United States was ''concerned about Sudan's growing interest" in biological weapons, and suggested Sudan was among five nations believed to be pursuing germ warfare.

But Bolton's claim, made two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, went beyond what the CIA was publicly asserting in reports to Congress -- merely that Sudan ''may be interested" in biological weapons. Later CIA documents dropped Sudan from the list of nations believed to be interested in biological weapons, and the State Department apparently never repeated Bolton's claim.

Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations has been delayed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to give senators time to consider claims about Bolton, including that he tried to go beyond established intelligence in describing Cuba's military threat and sought the dismissal of an intelligence analyst who prevented him from asserting that Cuba had an offensive biological weapons program.

But before his 2002 statements on Cuba, it was Sudan that Bolton highlighted in warning that many nations were pursuing weapons of mass destruction.

In a widely publicized speech in 2001, Bolton mentioned Sudan among ''rogue states" believed to be pursuing biological weapons, alongside Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Syria. Cuba was not mentioned.

''The United States believes that Libya has an offensive BW program in the research and development stage, and it may be capable of producing small quantities of agent," Bolton said, according to a transcript of his speech at the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) review session, held at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. ''We believe that Syria -- which has not ratified the BWC -- has an offensive BW program in the research and development stage, and it may be capable of producing small quantities of agent. Finally, we are concerned about the growing interest of Sudan, a non-BWC party, in developing a BW program."

Bolton said the biological weapons treaty ''has not succeeded in dissuading these states from pursuing BW programs." That failure, he said, was one reason the United States rejected further efforts under the treaty.

A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said yesterday that Bolton's remarks were carefully vetted in an interagency process and ''represented the best assessment at the time."

But Bolton's inclusion of Sudan among states that were pursuing biological weapons programs surprised many American arms control specialists at the time, including Bolton's former deputy, Avis Bohlen, then the assistant secretary of state for arms control.

''I don't think that it was commonly believed that Sudan had a growing interest in biological weapons," Bohlen said in an interview this week. ''That was not part of the working assumption."

Sudan, a country that once gave refuge to Osama bin Laden, was accused by the US government of pursuing chemical weapons in the 1990s, but intelligence assessments about biological weapons were always far more tentative. President Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in 1998, but the move is now regarded by many specialists as a blunder, after evidence emerged that the factory was a leading supplier of antimalaria medicine for the country.

Bolton declined to comment for this article. Nominees awaiting Senate confirmation generally do not speak to the press. In a Senate hearing conducted earlier this month, he said he did not seek to retaliate against the intelligence analyst who disagreed with his Cuba assessment; he said he merely indicated to colleagues that he had lost confidence in the analyst.

Arms specialists say it is extremely difficult to detect clandestine biological weapons programs because such weapons can easily be hidden in laboratories producing vaccines or other civilian products. Arms inspectors last year concluded that Iraq's biological weapons program had withered away by the time US-led forces invaded in March 2003, despite the assertion of Bolton and other US officials in the run-up to the war that the program's existance was ''beyond dispute."

Iran, North Korea, and Syria are still suspected of pursuing biological weapons, though the extent of their programs is unclear. Libya has disclosed its past intentions to develop biological weapons capabilities, but said it was for defensive purposes only.

The CIA's unclassified biennial reports to Congress on weapons of mass destruction threats suggest that the case against Sudan was weak.

In 1999, the CIA told Congress that Sudan ''may be" interested in biological weapons, ''given its history in developing [chemical weapons] and its close relationship with Iraq." By the end of 2003, the CIA had dropped Sudan from its report.

Months after Bolton's 2001 speech, Carl W. Ford Jr., then the head of the State Department's Intelligence and Research Bureau, did not mention Sudan in his testimony to Congress in his list of countries suspected of pursuing biological weapons.

Bolton himself dropped the claim against Sudan in a speech he gave at the Heritage Foundation in May 2002 entitled ''Beyond the Axis of Evil." In that speech, Bolton reiterated his accusations against Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and North Korea. He also highlighted what he saw as a new threat: Cuba.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is also looking into whether Bolton tried to go beyond established intelligence in describing Syria's efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.

The New York Times has reported that Bolton ''clashed repeatedly" in 2002 and 2003 with intelligence officials who thought his proposed language on Syria was exaggerated.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com.

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